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Urban garden – Britomart precinct by Cheshire Architects

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Ortolana, Milse, The Store by Cheshire Architects

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Somewhere between a pop-up shop and a established retail development lies an innovative precinct with a five-year lifespan.

That's one way to describe The Pavilions at Britomart, Auckland, a semi-permanent retail and hospitality area in the heart of the cool part of town. Because the site is set for redevelopment in a few years, the design team at Cheshire Architects saw an opportunity to do something a little different.

Designer Nat Cheshire says the team was commissioned to develop half a city block within the Britomart precinct. But right from the outset they decided the plan was not going to be about creating a pretty row of buildings.

"This site is available to us for only five years. This meant we needed to slash the financial and time cost of conventional development, while still delivering an exciting new experience to the precinct. The key was letting the garden be the architecture. We glibly called it anti-architecture: we would turn the buildings into living hedges, and focus all our energy on the shopfront windows that pierce them. This was about bringing beauty and delicacy back to urban life: something soft and humane in scale; garden beds with strawberries, orchids and dappled sunlight; the opposite of this town's big diffuse civic spaces."

Cheshire says it was important to attract lots of stores and cafés, to ensure a critical mass of potential business in the precinct.

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"Britomart had already become a nightly theatre of activity. We were simply determined to deliver the same to its days. We imagined people stepping out of the train station or dropping their car keys in the hands of a valet, slipping between boutiques, indulging in a makeover or pausing to sip champagne in the sun – it was more about writing a story than designing a building."

The development consequently features eight fashion and specialty boutiques, each housed in its own distinct pavilion structure. These are clustered around a central courtyard restaurant with a high, translucent peaked roof – Ortolana, which means market gardener in Italian, is owned by The Hip Group. Tucked in behind, on Tyler Street, is the patisserie and dessert restaurant Milse. The development also houses The Store, a casual diner and takeaway outlet that features a bakery that supplies The Hip Group's entire stable of cafés and stores with bread, pastries and gelato.

"The bakery is highly visible – we wanted the city to understand that here, everything was made especially for you, from scratch," says Cheshire.

Milse, shown on the preceding pages, was perhaps the most challenging design.

"Essentially, we took a site down a service lane and crimped space from three or four storage rooms belonging to other tenancies to make this dessert restaurant. This meant the space had a very awkward geometry. In response, we developed a fluid surface of router-cut plywood panels controlled by mathematical modelling. This let us open up the screen to the light in front of the windows, and close it up again to hide the chaotic wallboard in other areas."

The flooring features reclaimed timber boards laid on the diagonal, which make the space seem a little wider, and help to draw the eye through.

The Store also features router-cut plywood panels that provide a visual link to the patisserie.

Ortolana, shown on these pages, is all about alfresco dining, although there are also tables inside the restaurant. The translucent gabled roof is supported on posts camouflaged by trellis-like timber screens covered in creepers.

"We designed this restaurant as a little pavilion, like the caretaker's cottage in the middle of the garden," says Cheshire. "It has a focus on garden-based produce – this is not a steak house. It is all about lightness and freshness. It is also a very simple space where the walls fold back to open up the restaurant to the garden."

Key materials include fine steel-framed windows, recycled brick walls and timber. The main table is a single slab of swamp kauri.

"For us, the architecture starts with the city block and ends with the teaspoons," says Cheshire. "Every aspect of this project, from the built forms to the soft Belgian linen on the tables, was designed or selected to evoke a very specific atmosphere, to provide the best experience possible."

First published date: 06 October 2013

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Credit List

Cladding Recycled brick veneer; James Hardie Hardiflex sheet on cavity construction
Flooring Travertine stone from Italian stone; recycled kauri from Kauri Warehouse
Location The Pavilions at Britomart, Auckland
Developer Cooper and Company
Architect Cheshire Architects
Construction company for base build Bracewell Construction
Interior fit-out company Greenmount Shopfitters & Interiors
Tenant The Hip Group
Mechanical and electrical engineer Norman Disney & Young (NDY)
Quantity surveyor WT Partnership
Fire consultant Holmes Fire and Safety
Landscape design Damian Wendelborn, Urbanite
Landscape contractor Mike Price Landscapes
Roof Colorsteel profiled metal roofing by Metro Roofing
Glazing Crittall Arnold steel windows and doors
Wallcoverings and ceilings Keruning plywood with Osmo oil finish
Paints Porter's Paint; liquid copper
Lighting Monmouth Glass Studio, KKDC
Heating/air conditioning Fonko NZ
Signage Degree Design; Dimension Shopfitters